Mirror Images are fairest
Workers are tops at T-shirt plant
By JOHN CASTELLUCCI
PAWTUCKET - How far back does Rick Roth go in the T-shirt business?
Far enough back so that when he manufactured his first big seller, a T-shirt in which a photo of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower was superimposed over the face of rhythm and blues star Ike Turner, people actually got the joke.
Roth has come a long way since he silk screened the "Ike" and Tina T-shirt in his basement in Somerville, Mass.
Journal photos/WILLIAM K. DABY
GOT IT DOWN TO A T: Wylie Fisher readies one of the giant screen printing carousels for a run at Mirror Image Inc., which has grown from a $100,000-a-year business in 1987 to one that takes in $2.5 million annually.
Mirror Image Inc. has grown from a small cottage industry to a T-shirt manufacturer acclaimed for the quality of its reproductions. Since 1987, when Roth bought a manual press and installed it in a warehouse not far from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the company's sales have soared from $100,000 to $2.5 million a year.
The company has become so big it has outgrown the 11,000-square-foot warehouse space it occupied in Cambridge and moved in October to the 28,000-squre-foot John W. Little Building on Exchange Street. From a small shop with a handful of workers, it has grown into a United Auto Workers-affiliated operation with 28 unionized employees.
The driving force in the company's growth has been Roth's emphases on quality reproductions. The company uses a cutting-edge printing technology that uses up to 14 different color inks, rather than the four-color process common amoung T-shirt makers.
RICK ROTH, Mirror Image owner,
has his own ideas about running a company.
The 14-color process has made it possible to print not only William Wegman and Richard Avedon photographs, but also life like pictures of beer bottles and presentable reproductions of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet and Jean Renoir.
"I always say, if you want the Mona Lisa on a black T-shirt, you hire us," Roth says. "We're the best - well, one of the best."
Success Hasn't spoiled Roth, however.
He still dresses casually, takes his dog to the office, pitches a mean softball game and organizes for the human rights organization, Amnesty International.
At age 46, he is even taking up street hockey.
Counterculture values, however, are still very much in evidence at Mirror Image. Employees work 10 hours a day, four days a week, so that they will have three days off each week to pursue other activities because, Roth says, work stinks.
"My business is the people who work here. My goal is to have someone here who's better than me. I'm never going to be able to do what they do," he says.
Roth stops to point out several key members of the production staff: Joel thibodeau, a singer; Pedro Vargas, a musician; Matt Yapachian, a filmmaker, and Brian Lessard, a painter who attended the Massachusetts College of Art.
Roth says Mirror Image has been contracted to produce canvas tote bags and cotton T-shirts for the "Van Gogh: Face to Face" exhibit that will be at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from July through September. The company did the T-shirts and tote bags for the John Singer Sargent exhibit at the museum last year.
Although he has been in Pawtucket less than a year, Roth has already put down roots in the community.
He has hired a dozen Rhode Islanders and given part-time jobs to two students from nearby Tolman High School, Jessica Bahl and Rilda Santos.
Roth has also organized a local Amnesty International group, headed by Henrietta White-Holder, who recently became a U.S. citizen after immigrating from Liberia, and Carla Dias, who was born in Cape Verde and raised in Macau.
The Amnesty International group in Somerville, Mass., where Roth lives with his four daughters - Allison, Christina, Hope and Melissa - is going strong.
Mirror Image has also begun manufacturing T-shirts and tote bags that are sold on consignment in the Slater Mill gift shop. The reproduction quality is so good, says Slater Mill's Gail Fowler Mohanty, that she is planning to order about 800 custom made T-shirts for the annual Labor and Ethnic Heritage festival, which takes place at Slater Mill the Sunday before Labor Day.
Mohanty is a festival board member as well as executive director of the Slater Mill Historic Site. In past years, T-shirts sold during the festival were illustrated with pictures by cartoonist Don Bousquet, illustrator David Macaulay and Pendragon guitarist Russell Gusette. Mohanty says she is looking for an artist to do the T-shirt art this year.